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Lightning's Callahan has motivation to be X-factor

by Corey Long /

BRANDON, Fla. --  It was no surprise Tampa Bay Lightning forward Ryan Callahan was starting to feel better shortly after his emergency appendectomy Monday and wanted to participate in an optional practice Thursday in hopes of playing in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final against the New York Rangers on Saturday (1 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, NBC, TVA Sports).

"[The surgery] was tough news," Callahan said. "I didn't know what to expect, but each day it's felt tremendously better even though it's only been two days. You want to get back as soon as possible but you also want to make sure you can help the team. I think every guy in the room would do the same."

Although Callahan said playing the conference final is exciting regardless of who the opponent is, it's understandable if he's a little more motivated to face the Rangers. Even if he doesn't want to admit it.

"When I saw who won my thought was to start packing," Callahan said. "We're headed to New York."

As each team has moved forward and is having success since the 2014 trade that sent Callahan to the Lightning for Martin St. Louis, there was little doubt Callahan wanted to bring his "A" game on the three occasions the Lightning played the Rangers this season.

The Lightning went 3-0-0 in those games and Callahan scored four goals and had one assist.

In many ways, the 2014-15 season has been one of redemption for Callahan. He played 77 games in the regular season, his most since 2009-10. His 54 points (24 goals, 30 assists) matched his NHL career high.

His leadership has been praised by teammates, and if there were ever any questions about his toughness, those were answered Thursday.

Callahan, however, hasn't been as good for the Lightning in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. In 16 games, including last season, he has three assists, but his plus-7 rating this year means he's had productive moments on the ice.

What better time would it be for Callahan to score his first playoff goal with the Lightning than against the team that drafted him, developed him, made him their captain and then traded him?

"It's going to be a challenge," Callahan said. "They are a great organization and they have great players that have been together for quite a while. I think this is their third conference finals appearance in four years."

If Callahan plays Saturday, there will be a question where to put him. At times he has been paired with Steven Stamkos on the top line, but in Game 5 Stamkos moved to the wing, Valtteri Filppula moved to center and Callahan found himself back on the third line with Brian Boyle and Cedric Paquette.

"I just want to help the team where I can," Callahan said. "This is Tampa Bay and New York, it has nothing to do with me and nothing to do with [St. Louis]. We're just two guys."

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